Advent Episode 13: A little problem with the regulations

Alison was back in her office, working her way through the usual rounds of emails. Requests for extensions. Invitations to staff development sessions. The University’s latest achievements. New research notifications. Excited queries about the latest teaching technique/trendy software from the various mailing lists she subscribed to, in the hope of keeping up to date. A new message arrived.

To: Alison Fraser

From: Geoff Sanders

Subject: Assessment Penalties

Priority: Urgent

Alison, can you call me as soon as you get this?


Alison sighed. Geoff had a passing interest in teaching and learning, specifically assessment. He often seemed to find time for a chat about novel approaches or the minutiae of the regulations. She lifted the phone.

“Geoff. Alison. You wanted to talk to me?”

“OK, I’ll come right down”

What on earth was wrong with Geoff? His fleeting curiosity about assessment didn’t usually require her to drop what she was doing and come down to his office. It was usually more a matter of being stuck in the corner with him on one of the rare occasions when refreshments were provided during a long meeting. She made for the stairs, keeping her head down slightly in case she was buttonholed on the way down the corridor.

“Dr Fraser!” called someone from behind her. She sighed and turned round, expecting a student. It was Alex. She managed a small, social smile. “Alex! How are you?”

“Fine thanks, Dr Fraser. Did you manage to get back to him?”

Alison frowned at him. “Sorry?”

“The Detective Inspector.”

“Oh, yes. Thanks, Alex.” replied Alison, vaguely. She could barely remember the message. “Yes, I called him back,” she added. “Got to go and see Geoff now, thanks again”

She turned and continued, leaving Alex standing in the corridor looking disappointed. She’d walked another twenty metres before she remembered that she’d meant to tell him about the capital letters in the note. And actually, she’d asked him to come and talk to her about timetabling. She’d completely forgotten. Damn. She turned round again, but Alex was heading back towards the admin office. She realised that she’d forgotten all about poor Gareth Jones again, and felt another twinge of anxiety about her own callousness.

When she got to Geoff’s office, he was hovering near the door as though he was waiting for her. Geoff could be a bit restless.

“Alison, thanks for coming down.” He closed the door carefully behind her. “Sit down,” he suggested, waving at a chair on the other side of his desk.

Alison felt uneasy. Geoff could be a bit restless, but he wasn’t usually jumpy, and they usually sat in the armchairs next to the window.

They both sat down. Geoff looked fixedly at his computer screen.

“Alison,” he started. There was a pause.

Alison started to feel a bit queasy. What was wrong with Geoff? Was he ill?

“Terrible news about Gareth Jones” she offered “Giving me all sorts of problems finding cover, too.”

Geoff looked at her blankly. “Gareth Jones?”

“The part-time lecturer who’s been found, er, who’s died.” Geoff continued to stare. It was clear that he had no idea what she was talking about.

“You spoke to Detective Inspector Bones about him.” prompted Alison.

“Bones. Did I?” replied Geoff, then seemed to pull himself together. “But that isn’t what I wanted to talk to you about. I wanted to talk to you about the ‘Foundations of Biology’ course.”

“Oh, sure.” said Alison, confused by the change of topic.

“Have you checked the module handbook?” continued Geoff.

“Um. Probably.” Alison frantically tried to remember what she had and hadn’t seen this year. Foundations of Biology? Module leader was Jan Bowman. Jan had been teaching the same module, or variations of it, for donkeys’ years. She probably hadn’t checked the handbook this year, if she was honest. Jan was very reliable.

“I’m not sure, to tell you the truth, Geoff” she said “you know Jan is very reliable. I may not have looked at her stuff with the same care as, say…” she tailed off, thinking about Gareth Jones and Cell Biology module. She’d definitely checked that one. For what it was worth. It didn’t look as though any of it had been taught, and she still needed to sort it out.

Geoff was talking again. “Well, I think you should have done” he said, quite sharply.

Alison was feeling both queasy and confused. Geoff was usually very gentle. She’d never had any problems working with him. What was going on?

Geoff had jabbed at some buttons on the keyboard and his printer was clacking away in the corner. Once again, Alison’s thoughts were distracted. His own personal printer. Everyone else had to share the communal ‘multifunction device’ in the admin office. There was nothing worse than having to queue around that ten minutes before class started, waiting for your handouts to be printed whilst reams of committee documentation took priority. He didn’t even do any teaching.

“Look at this” Geoff waved the papers under her nose. She took them and flipped through the module handbook for Foundations of Biology.

“What am I looking for, Geoff?”

“Look at the assignment instructions.”  She turned to the last page of the handbook. The usual stuff. Put together your lab reports into a portfolio to be submitted on 14 January, submit to the coursework receipting office in a single document, no plastic folders, number the pages, don’t put your name on anything, guide 3000 words…she looked up, shaking her head slightly “Sorry Geoff, what am I looking for?” she repeated.

“Penalties!” Geoff almost spat out the word “Penalties!” he added, incredulously.

Note:  Your mark in this module will be capped if you do not behave properly. Late arrival at sessions, impoliteness, excessive questioning, disputes with the lecturer will all incur a cap of 10%.

“Oh, shit” Alison exclaimed involuntarily.

“Exactly. How did this happen?”

Alison looked up from the sheaf of papers. “Shit. I’ve got no idea. Jan is always so…”

“Reliable?” Geoff almost snarled at her.

Alison stared at him. “Hang on, Geoff. Are you blaming me for this?” She narrowed her eyes slightly. “Jan works for you. You’re her line manager. I just co-ordinate the teaching for the course. If she had a problem, I would have expected you to know about it.”

They stared at each other for a moment.

Alison continued “but that isn’t the issue right now, is it? How did you find out about this?”

Geoff blinked. “I had a phone call. From a parent. He said that his son had been told by Jan that anything he submitted would have an automatic 20% knocked off the mark. Apparently he was late to class one day because his flatmate was sick, and when she told him about the marks he was going to lose, he queried this with her, and she told him he’d lose another 10% for – and apparently I quote here – for insubordination.”

“Insubordination?” echoed Alison.  That wasn’t a word which was often heard on campus. “Oh, God. What else did this parent say?”

Geoff looked at Alison for a moment. “Mr Patel” he said “is a solicitor. He had managed to find the University’s regulations on the Quality Assurance Unit’s website – which is more than most of my staff seemed to manage” he added in a mutter.

Alison sat quietly. She had worked with Geoff for a long time. On the rare occasions when he talked about ‘my staff’ rather than ‘colleagues,’ it was usually better to sit quietly. “He pointed out to me in no uncertain terms that there did not seem to be any provision for penalties for behavioural matters. Mr Patel has suggested that he may be requesting a judicial review of the decision.”

“Oh, God. That’s terrible. What’s a judicial review?”

Geoff glared at her. “That’s not the point right now.”

Alison made a mental note to Google ‘judicial review’ as soon as she got back to the office. In fact, she wondered if she could get out her phone now and surreptitiously look it up. Geoff obviously didn’t know what it was either, but it sounded bad.

“The point now, Alison” Geoff emphasised the first syllable of her name in what she felt was a rather sinister way. Oh God, why couldn’t she concentrate on the main point.  “Is to sort this out before it goes any further. Obviously, the work hasn’t been handed in yet, so no penalties have been applied. It was an idle threat.”

“Yes, of course it was. Phew. No harm done.” Alison realised that she was gabbling, but she couldn’t for the life of her think what she was supposed to say or do. She was still trying to work out what it all meant.

Geoff had moved forward a little in his seat. He leaned over the desk towards her. “No. Harm. Done” he repeated. “Are you sure about that?”

Alison looked at him. She felt really queasy now. “Well…” she tailed off.

Geoff straightened his back, but was still leaning towards her. It was quite intimidating. “Let’s see” he said, as though considering a mathematical proof to which he already knew the solution, “Point number 1. Jan has taken the law into her own hands. Or if not the law, the regulations. Point number 2. The university has a disciplinary code to deal with poor behaviour. Point number 3. Assessment is carried out according to whether the student has achieved the intended learning outcomes, not whether the student is a charming member of the human race or not. Point number 4.”

Alison interrupted him. “Yes, Geoff, I understand, Jan has been rather naughty, but..”

Geoff looked quite cross now “Point number 4.” He continued “It appears that this has been going on for some time.”

Alison looked at him “what do you mean?”

“It means” he said, weightily, with the air of a detective who has spent several weeks investigating an unusual case “that last year’s handbook is identical to this year’s. Which means that Jan has done this before”.

“Oh, shit. That means that last year’s marks..” she tailed off.

“..May not be correct.” Geoff finished the sentence for her.

“Oh, shit”. Alison was no longer having trouble in concentrating on the main point. The implications of all of this were passing before her all too easily. An arbitrary application of a penalty to an unknown number of student marks. Decision of the exam board in doubt. Possibility that there were students who had failed and been thrown out because of arbitrary penalty. She was beginning to have an inkling of what a judicial review might be. Oh, shit.

Geoff had paused, presumably to let this all sink in. “Point number five.”

Oh, God. How could there be a point number five?

“Did you scan the last page of that module handbook by any chance?” Alison looked down at the papers in her hand and mechanically turned to the last page.

Note: Your mark may be increased if you show a special contribution to the class! Come and talk to me about what that might involve!

She felt worse than queasy now. Jan was lovely, everybody loved her, the students loved her, the admin staff loved her, the technical staff loved her….there couldn’t be anything really wrong with what she’d done, surely it was just a matter of interpretation. She looked back up.

Geoff was clearly waiting for a response. She cleared her throat gingerly. She could feel ripples of nausea rising and she didn’t want to make any sudden moves. “Um. OK. So. What do we need to do?”

“You,” replied Geoff “need to sort out this year’s module immediately. You’ll need to meet with the students and explain to them that there isn’t really a penalty..”

Alison interrupted him “But won’t that undermine Jan’s authority over the class?”

Geoff gave her a very hard look. This really wasn’t like him “You will explain that to them, and tell them to bring any queries directly to you. Then you’ll go back over last year’s records to see if there are any, er, anomalies in the marks for the whole cohort. ”

“What kind of anomalies?”

“Students who did particularly well or particularly badly in Foundations of Biology” said Geoff, speaking slowly, as though to a small child.

“with a view to what?” responded Alison, belligerently, as though she were in fact a small child, rather than a senior member of the Biology department. She realised what she sounded like, and took a sharp intake of breath.

“Geoff” she continued, more sweetly “aren’t you the chair of the exam board? Aren’t you responsible for the final marks? Didn’t you notice any ‘anomalies’ when you were going through them all? Shouldn’t you be the one to talk to Jan? You are her line manager, after all.”

Geoff looked very, very hard at her, and then sighed. He leaned away from Alison, sinking back down in his seat like a deflating balloon. They looked at each other warily.

“Come on, Geoff” Alison said, briskly “we need to pull together on this one. I’ll sort out the students, you talk to Jan.”

Geoff nodded weakly.

“Shall we phone the student’s father now and see if we can sort that out first?” He nodded again. “Come on, then. Where’s the number?”

Geoff turned his eyes down to his notebook, open on the desk. He dialled the most recent phone number on the page. Alison craned forward.

“Hello. May I speak to Mr Patel, please?” “It’s Professor Sanders from Burston Central University”

“Well, fairly urgent”

“Yes, I’ll hold”

Alison could hear ‘Greensleeves’ playing faintly and tinnilly through the handset. Greensleeves. She hadn’t heard that for a while. More likely to get Rihanna blasting at you these days.

She started making a mental list of things she’d need to do. Get onto the online course system and hide the handbook for Foundations of Biology. Make an appointment to talk to Jan – despite what she’d just said to Geoff, she’d need to sort out the course stuff. Check the timetable for Foundations and arrange to go in and talk to the students. Get admin to dig out last year’s transcripts. She sighed again. As if she didn’t have enough to do.

Geoff was talking again.

“Mr Patel. Good to talk to you again”

“I just wanted to thank you so much for bringing this little matter to my attention”

“Oh, I can assure you it’s a little matter. Our lecturer didn’t mean to worry anyone. She was just trying to make sure that the class was, er, with her, yes, with her at all times. Of course there would have been no application of any penalty. Ha! Ha! Of course not. As you yourself were able to tell me, that just wouldn’t be allowed in our regulations”.

Geoff paused for breath, giving Mr Patel the opportunity to speak. A pained expression appeared on Geoff’s face.

“Mr Patel, I do assure you that the University has complete control over its courses. I’m sure you’d agree with me that it’s important for academic freedom to have a good variety of staff.”

“Of course we know what’s going on”

“As chair of the exam board I can assure you that your son will not be in any way disadvantaged by his little, er, expression of opinion. Although you might like to remind him of our behaviour code when you’re talking to him,” Geoff added, in a clear attempt to regain some authority over the situation.

“No, Mr Patel, I’m sure this will never happen again. Once again, thank you so much for taking the trouble to contact me. Now, I’m sure you’re a very busy man and I won’t take up any more of your time. Hope to see you at graduation!”

Geoff hung up and turned back towards Alison. He looked drained.

Alison stood up. “Right, well, I’d better get to it. Shall I tell Jan to come and see you?”

Geoff looked as though he wanted to protest, but couldn’t quite remember why. He nodded, weakly. Alison made for the door. This clearly wasn’t over, but she really, really needed to get out of Geoff’s office. Instead of going back up to her room, she went down to the ground floor and walked out into the park. It was rather cold to be sitting on a bench, but she just needed five minutes in what passed for fresh air in the city centre. Her stomach was still protesting. She breathed deeply. Maybe it would all go away.

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6 thoughts on “Advent Episode 13: A little problem with the regulations

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